Introduction to a series on Ibn Taymiyyah

Although much of my current research focuses on the contemporary trends in jihadi intellectual thought, Western jihadi networks, and online jihadi activities; my passion on the side is understanding classical and medieval Islamic intellectual thought as a means to better understand the jihadi phenomenon in the context of the broad sweep of Islamic intellectual history. Therefore, I have taken a keen interest in understanding the life and work of Taqi ad-Din Ibn Taymiyyah since he is viewed by many Western terrorism analysts as well as jihadis as the foundation for jihadi ideology.

While writing my master’s thesis more than year ago, I discovered through the guidance of my graduate advisor as well as reading some of the academic literature that the basis for understanding Ibn Taymiyyah has been skewed as a consequence of much of his thought being filtered through Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, founder of “Wahhabism,” and the state religion of Saudi Arabia. This suggested that it was crucial to further investigate his thought unfiltered.

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A group of ‘ulama convened a conference on March 27-28, 2010 in the city of Mardin, Turkey that revisited Ibn Taymiyyah’s famous fatwa on the status of the city of Mardin and whether it was in Balad al-Silm (land of peace) or Balad al-Harb (land of war). This fatwa was also previously examined (along with three other fatawa) in Yahya Michot’s excellent book Muslims under non-Muslim Rule: Ibn Taymiyya, which I reviewed for a forthcoming issue of the academic journal Terrorism and Political Violence. Therefore, I will not get into the substance of it here.

What makes this all important in terms of bridging the gap between the classical and medieval to the contemporary is that as a result of the conclusions made at the Mardin Conference, it irked some jihadis. I am only aware of Dr. Akram Hijazi, Adam Gadahn, and Anwar al-Awlaki’s rebuttal of the conference. If anyone is aware of others please pass the primary literature along.

As such, I believed I could try and fill a gap in the literature by examining the responses of contemporary jihadis to the conference in light of the primary and secondary literature on the actual fatwa. It is the hope of this author that it will help shed more light on the interaction between the historicity of the fatwa and what one could describe as an “imagined history.”

Thus, this author proposes to first blog about it as a way to expound his preliminary thoughts and receive open source peer review prior to submitting it to an actual peer reviewed journal. Not only will this be an innovative way of leveraging Web 2.0 technology with academic pursuits, but it will also hopefully foster a greater discourse and allow more access to this type of information.

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Prior to delving into that discussion, I felt it was necessary to read more on Ibn Taymiyyah’s life and thought. During my research I came across a recently published edited volume titled Ibn Taymiyyah and His Times. While reading it I felt it would be worthwhile to share some of its insights on Ibn Taymiyyah.

As a prologue to an examination of jihadi responses to the challenge of the Mardin Conference, I will highlight in forthcoming posts valuable information from the edited volume that may help illuminate the complexities in Ibn Taymiyyah’s thought in a more sophisticated manner than much of the naïve proclamations about him in popular Western and jihadi accounts.

Jihadism and the ‘Ulama

Two days ago, J.M. Berger of IntelWire wrote an article describing a recent trend in the statements and video releases published by Adam Gadahn and Anwar al ‘Awlaki that have tried to discredit the ‘ulama (religious scholars). These ideas, though, are not new, but provide further example of a trend, which has pervaded some of the key Jihadist intellectual thinkers in the post-Caliphate era (the Caliphate was abolished in 1924).

Today, Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brothers in 1928, would not be considered a global jihadist, but his ideas became a foundation for later thinkers to build off of and further radicalize his thought. al-Banna did not understand how the ‘ulama could do nothing in the face of what he percieved was happening to the Muslim world. He viewed the Muslim Brothers’ values as a refutation of the values of al-Azhar University (the most respected Sunni place of high education) and how the university dealt with contemporary issues. The late Richard P. Mitchell, a scholar at the University of Michigan and author of The Society of the Muslim Brothers, summed up al-Banna’s thought on the ‘ulama, stating:

Azhar had persisted in a time-worn, anachronistic approach to Islam and its teachings—dry, dead, ritualistic, and irrelevant to the needs of living Muslims.[1]

Sayyid Qutb, who is viewed as the godfather of the modern jihadist movement, was critical of the ‘ulama as well. He believed they were opportunists that were using religious texts to their own advantage, which is pretty rich coming from Qutb, a man that has a degree in literature and created his own innovative way of understanding Islam.[2] Even more zealous over the problems with the ‘ulama was Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Farrag, who coined the term the near enemy as well as led the group Tanzim al-Jihad (later Egyptian Islamic Jihad) in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. These are his thoughts from his book Jihad: The Neglected Duty:

There are some who say that what we should do now is busy ourselves with seeking knowledge, for how can we struggle in the cause of Allah while we are lacking the knowledge, which is fard (obligatory) to seek? But we have not heard anyone who says that it is permitted to abandon an Islamic order or an obligation of the obligations of Islam because of knowledge, especially if this obligation is Jihad. So how can we abandon a fard ‘ayn (individual obligation) because of fard kifayah (collective obligation)? … So he who says that knowledge is Jihad must realize that what is fard is fighting … If a person wants to increase his knowledge … he could do so, because there are no restrictions on knowledge, which is available for everybody. But to delay Jihad because of seeking knowledge is an evidence of the one who has no evidence … However, we do not underestimate knowledge and scholars, rather we call for that. But we do not use it as evidence to abandon the obligations that Allah ordained.[3]

More recently, Osama bin Laden argued:

Despite of this hard siege imposed on you O my Islamic Ummah, you still have a great opportunity to regain your freedom to go out of the submission to and the dependence of this Crusader/Zionist alliance. To reach that, you should free yourself from the fetters of humiliation and subservience shackling us by the agents of this alliance who are our countries’ governors and their helpers especially the fetters of the Ulamaa of the Sultan, as well the fetters of the Islamic groups which transform their method to recognize the governor who betrayed the religion and the Ummah, and they join the political process of the state of this governor, and no difference for them if they are in the rule or opposition.[4]

Further, last month, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri stated:

This orientation has the purer methodology and the more correct doctrine, because it relies on the explicit and definite proofs of the Qur’an and Sunnah [Prophetic Way], and cites the historical and political reality of the Muslim Ummah, and believes neither in the fatwas of the “Fuqahaa” of the Marines nor in the hired ‘Ulama in Riyadh, Cairo and Qatar.[5]

Finally, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Jordanian cleric who mentored Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and is considered the most influential living global jihadist theorist, has written about what he describes as the murji’ah (non-righteous scholars) on several occasions. Here are a couple examples:

I advise them not be deceived by the ambiguities of the phony scholars, who confuse the truth with falsehood and confuse the path to Paradise with the path to Hellfire.[6]

The Mujahideen do not need you, half men and with no resolve. They do not need any advice on Jihad from scholars who are paid for and defeated. They do not need to ask you if it is okay with you or if their Jihad is compatible with you thinking. No, they do not need that. They have all the wisdom and the vision that they need. Die in your anger, and continue your criticism of the Mujahideen. You cannot destroy their resolve; your poisoned pins would not affect their Jihad. Nothing will affect them.[7]

Added up, one can see that individuals involved with the jihadist movement have tried to discredit the ‘ulama for quite some time now. One of the goals is to weaken state institutions linked to corrupt governments, as well as weakening potential enemies. Another is due to the lack of true religious legitimacy by many in the movement. As such, they are compensating and trying to discredit individuals who are trained in the religion and understand that their understanding of Islam is not based on the classical tradition.

[1] Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1993), 212-213.

[2] Roxanne Leslie Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 133.

[3] Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Farrag, Jihad: The Neglected Duty (Birmingham, UK: Maktabah Al Ansaar Publications, 2000), 46-48.

[4] Osama bin Laden, The Way To Rescue Palestine (As-Sahab Media Productions, 2008).

[5] Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, A Victorious Ummah, A Broken Crusade: Nine Years After the Start of the Crusader Campaign (As-Sahab Media Productions, 2010).

[6] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, A message in support of the Mujahideen in Somalia and exposing the doubts created the Ullamah of Dajjaal (Minbar Tawhid W’al Jihad, 2009).

[7] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, The Caravan is Moving and the Dogs are Barking (Minbar Tawhid W’al Jihad).